At East Bay Express, racism charges prompt resignations and a reckoning

Image of Oakland via Thomas Hawk/Flickr.

The resignation of an East Bay Express staffer in June recently cascaded into multiple resignations, charges of racism, concerns for editorial independence, and allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. Now, the paper faces a likely sale and a reassessment of its own commitment to diversity, in its staffing and its coverage.

Azucena Rasilla resigned from her associate editor position at the Express, her hometown alt-weekly, on June 1. Express publisher Stephen Buel had met with Rasilla earlier that day and informed her, along with Express editor Kathleen Richards, that he had unilaterally removed Rasilla’s coverage of a music festival, in which she wrote about her own discomfort with white festival-goers yelling the n-word along with the music. In an account published after her resignation, Rasilla wrote that Buel declared the coverage “not up to the standards of East Bay Express” and “racist against white people.” His explanation to Rasilla during that meeting, according to her account: “You know, if a rapper puts it in his lyrics, it’s free game for anyone to say [the n-word].”

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The response from Buel’s current and former employees was swift and severe. A second staff member resigned after Rasilla, and Richards gave her two weeks, along with a warning: other Express staff would follow unless Buel relinquished all editorial control. After Buel published an apology—in which he admitted to using a racial slur, vowed to improve his company’s diversity commitment and “attend implicit bias training,” but did not apologize to departed staffers or offer much context for what had transpired—Rasilla countered with her own version of events, published to the site of journalist Gustavo Arellano.

More critical stories followed Rasilla’s. Jody Colley, a former Express publisher, accused Buel—in the comments of Buel’s apology—of non-consensually kissing her at a work party in 2009. (CJR obtained a disciplinary memo where Buel was cited for the incident, but received only a written warning.) And Kamala Kelkar, an investigative journalist at PBS Newshour Weekend, wrote on Twitter that Buel systematically built a papertrail to have her fired after she made newsroom accusations of sexism against another staffer while Buel was editor of the San Francisco Examiner in 2012:

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Buel, who did not acknowledge the aforementioned accounts and referred CJR to his previously published comments, announced his own resignation on July 14, and told KQED this week that he hopes to sell the Express. In an email to the NPR affiliate, Buel referred generally to past “mistakes,” then said, “the universe doesn’t seem to believe in forgiveness at the moment.” Buel’s letter did not address Kelkar, Colley, Kilat, or Rasilla.

 

THE EXPRESS HAS TRADITIONALLY covered underrepresented East Bay communities of color and the effects of gentrification, publishing stories about the Oakland Police Department’s discrimination against against black rappers and music venues and community-level shortages in hospital care. Richards acknowledges that the paper has not always covered such stories well. In 2007, while Buel was editor and Richards was a club writer, the Express published “The Making of a Criminal,” a story criticized by the Bay Area Black Journalists Association for its portrayal of a young black man.

After a meeting with the journalist group, Buel—who previously headed up diversity efforts at the San Jose Mercury News in the ’90s, an effort CJR covered in 1997—wrote:

Race relations is one of the issues that matters most to me and the paper, as I believe the legacy of our coverage and my career clearly shows. In fact, Tuesday’s discussion was uncomfortable for me because I left the meeting feeling racially stereotyped myself. Having now felt the sting of what people in the crowd were describing, I can honestly say that I get it in a way that I didn’t previously.

The community shifts that have informed Express stories continue: the black population in Berkeley declined from 14,000 in 2000 to 9,700 last year, and Oakland’s black population is projected to halve by 2030. Demographics for the Express newsroom were not available by press time, but Latinx and non-white staff made up just 17 percent of US newsrooms in 2016—a far cry from proportional representation for the 38 percent of Latinx and nonwhite Americans. From 2016 to 2017, the number of women in newsrooms increased by less than one percent, from 38.7 percent to 39.1 percent.

I feel like now that the story went public and I gave my account, I hope that opens up the conversation.

Richards, the Express editor who gave her notice to Buel, plans to stay on now that Buel has resigned, and hopes the Express can decide as a newsroom what diversity and retention efforts at the paper will look like. She tells CJR that recent circumstances at the Express have encouraged her to improve dialogue with the paper’s community, focus on creating a nurturing environment for underrepresented journalists, create an internship for a student journalist of color, and protect her staff internally from incidents like this ever happening again. (She mentioned a few such efforts in an editorial note published this week.)

“I think a lot of news organizations and alt-weeklies and mainstream news organizations need to have these conversations,” she tells CJR. “I know these things happen in other newsrooms. I’d love to see this spark a bigger conversation about gatekeeping in journalism.”

Gustavo Arellano, who published Rasilla’s account of her resignation, says he started his website because he felt “sick and tired of seeing all these magnificent journalists, mostly folks of color, get laid off and have no place for their awesome stories—or, if they do, get paid shit wages for them.”

“I want to serve as a platform for these folks, where they can publish stories that other publications were too stupid to reject,” says Arellano. Rasilla tells CJR she published her account with Arellano because he has been a personal mentor and a role model for her in the alt-weekly world.

Staff at the Express say the paper is exploring ways to offer both Rasilla and Kilat their jobs back. Rasilla tells CJR that she won’t feel comfortable returning to the paper until Buel finds a new owner and offers her as well as Kilat a public apology.

“I feel like now that the story went public and I gave my account, I hope that opens up the conversation,” says Rasilla. “I hope that middle-aged white men who own publications look at themselves in the mirror and reflect on my account and see if they’re doing anything as owners or publishers or editors to contribute to this problem. And I hope that it’s addressed in newsrooms across the country.”

Richards shares the same concerns.

“I think I’ve been the only non-white male editor in chief in the Express’s history,” she tells CJR. “I think that it doesn’t always need that, but it does help when you have more diverse writers. This is really important to me. This is why I got into journalism — to highlight underrepresented voices that have been silenced.”

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Gabe Schneider writes about California politics and policy. He is a co-founder of UC San Diego's The Triton, where he served as news editor and editor-in-chief. Find him on Twitter @gabemschneider.